Building Machu Picchu

Built for Inca royalty around 1450 A.D., Machu Picchu is a grand complex in the Andes mountains of Peru. It was occupied for 80 years, then for hundreds of years lay dormant. Here is a brief look at the ingenuity behind the building of Machu Picchu.

The citadel was an extensive complex with approximately 200 buildings, and housed about 750 people. It covered 80,000 acres (82,500 hectares).

It was roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector; with a variety of buildings including the royal palace and tomb, residential quarters, religious temples, the cemetery, prison area, and more.

In addition to the 200 buildings, Inca engineers also designed elaborate farming terraces and sophisticated canal irrigation systems. Water was guided through aqueducts into the citadel for use in agriculture and bathing. Pictured below is an indoor water feature with water that still flows.

This photo below of the Royal Tomb highlights the fine workmanship in the granite.

At the time, the buildings were constructed with thatched roofs. The thatching is long gone now, but there are a few buildings where officials revived the thatched roofs to demonstrate what it looked like.

The architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still admired today. Design incorporated the surrounding topography. With light and its resulting shadows, some designs mimicked the mountain peaks precisely.

This scene shows the parallels between the stone buildings and the mountains.

Building materials also incorporated the surroundings. They used the existing rock, primarily granite, in two basic ways: by chiseling the granite bedrock of the mountain ridge; and cutting granite from nearby quarries, transporting it to the site.

To transport the granite, builders cut it into blocks using nothing more than hard stones and bronze tools. Then hundreds of men, using ropes, logs, poles, levers and ramps, pushed it up the mountain.

Some blocks weighed more than 40 tons.

Amazing Feats #1 and #2: cutting hard granite with stone and bronze tools; and pushing 45-ton granite blocks up a steep mountain.

Elevation at Machu Picchu is 7,970 feet (2,430m). You can see here how steep the mountain is.

Amazing Feat #3, the one I never stopped examining as I stood among the rocks and walls of Machu Picchu: the way the stones fit together.

Once the blocks were pushed up the mountain and into place, builders fine-tuned the blocks until they were perfectly interlocking…so tightly and impeccably fitted that they used no mortar.

This technique, called ashlar masonry, was painstakingly practiced in the most sacred Inca sites.

In the 500+ years since its original construction, the buildings still remain standing, even in this earthquake-prone area.

Below are two of Machu Picchu’s celebrated structures. The first one is the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon, where they worshipped the sun, planets and Inca constellations.

Notice the trapezoidal-shaped windows. This design is prevalent throughout the citadel.

The second structure, below, titled Intihuatana, is what is believed to be an astronomic clock or calendar. It is a ritual stone arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. Inti was their sun god.

More information:

Machu Picchu Wikipedia

Inca Architecture Wikipedia

Just like the Inca empire, the Machu Picchu citadel was eventually lost to history. The Spanish conquistadors never found it, the reason it was still intact in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, an American lecturer and explorer, discovered it while on an expedition in search of a different site. (Although he was not the first to find it, he was considered the scientific discoverer.)

Beautiful Machu Picchu had been hidden under thick vegetation for hundreds of years.

During my two visits to Machu Picchu, occasionally a grazing llama ambled by, and a particularly enchanting sparrow sang, sealing in the natural beauty and rich history of this remarkable place.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Tropical Delights

Sometimes it is interesting to see some of our most common foods in their pre-processed earth-growing forms. Here is a fun look at a few of the food delights I have seen while birding in tropical countries.

The food plant I have seen the most in my tropical birding travels: bananas.

Genus Musa. Bananas grow in a wide variety of soils and are harvested in 135 countries.

The largest herbaceous plant, a banana plant is typically about 16 feet (5m) tall. There is a large pink flower or inflorescence that emerges from the plant where the bananas grow.

Although I would never venture into plantations on my own, local bird guides, familiar with surroundings and people, often take Athena and I into the fields.

In the Amazon, our guide led us through this banana plantation, below, as we headed for a bird blind. We were on a mission to spot macaws at the river bank. We took a shortcut through rows of these bananas. They are the most common cultivar, the Cavendish, the species most of us buy from the grocery store.

Lucky for us, we found the macaws too.

Interestingly, a few days after our macaw experience, our motorized canoe passed by these bananas being transported on their way to market.

This euphonia bird, in Belize, is eating the banana seeds he successfully wrangled out of the banana.

While the banana is one of the most recognizable food items in the world, there are few people who would ever know that these red pods are what chocolate is made from.

Years earlier, while birding in Belize, we first saw yellow pods hanging in the trees. In a flash, our guide Glen had kicked off his shoes, climbed a tree, and brought down a yellow pod. None of us knew what it was.

It is a cocoa pod. They come in various colors, depending on the species and maturity.

As Glen opened the pod, he enthusiastically explained he had done this frequently as a kid. It was impressive how quickly and deftly he climbed up that tree.

Making chocolate starts with the pod. They are cut from the tree with a machete, and the beans are extracted from the pod. There are 30-50 beans in each pod. The beans go through an elaborate process of fermentation, drying, roasting and more.

We tasted the beans, but it was nothing like chocolate. In fact, for one like me who is a chocolate lover, I chose to forget the taste.

Coffee, like chocolate, also goes through a lot of processing.

It starts in the field with a worker, like this Mexican man with his basket and machete. We were in this plantation marveling at parrotlets, soon after dawn, when he came through to start his work day.

Shade-grown crops, like this coffee plantation (below) in Belize, are an environmentally sound way to grow crops. You can see there are tall trees in the same land parcel as the short coffee plants. This way the coffee can grow without obliterating the surrounding forest.

These toucans, in this field, were happy about that.

This is one of the coffee plants up close. You can see the coffee berries in clumps in the center.

Between exporting and explorers, there have been many centuries of trading and transporting exotic foods. In tropical islands like Hawaii, we see many unique foods that originated in Southeast Asia like star fruit and rambutan.

While birding in a historic churchyard on the Big Island of Hawaii, we came across these star fruit.

When you cut a cross section of the fruit, the pieces are star-shaped.

Rambutans, too, are a plant that originated in Southeast Asia but also grows well in Hawaii.

Friendly surfers on a Kauai roadside sold us tasty rambutans.

It is a red tropical fruit with soft, hair-like spikes, seen in the center of the plate below. Easy to find all over Hawaii.

Pineapples and papayas are also easy to find all over Hawaii, both originally from the Americas.

This gecko is waiting for the day when the papayas will be ripe.

We are lucky in my home state of California where conditions provide a rich variety of crops. But I will have to cover that another time.

Whether you’re traveling or birding or simply cruising your own back roads, there are often crops or plants around us providing food to humans or other earth-dwelling inhabitants.

Cheers to a marvelous planet on which we live, providing sunshine, soil, rain and oxygen.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

San Francisco: 12 Iconic Sites

Now that travel has begun to open up after Covid, we are seeing more tourists return to San Francisco. Here are 12 of the popular sites for visitors and locals of all ages.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous bridge in the world, Golden Gate Bridge is 1.7 miles long (2.7 km) and hosts cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists. Its art deco design, striking International Orange color, and numerous suspension cables encase each person crossing with a sense of awe.

2. Alcatraz Island

As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the rock island of Alcatraz prominently centered in the bay. Formerly a military fort and prison, maximum security federal penitentiary, and civil rights protest occupation, today it is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

3. Cable Cars

One of San Francisco’s most exhilarating tourist activities, a cable car ride is a spirited mix of old-time travel through the neighborhoods of this modern city. Climbing and descending steep hills to the accompaniment of clanging bells and hand-operated brakes is one of my favorite ways to traverse the city.

Fog in San Francisco is as common as a sunrise.

4. Fisherman’s Wharf

With restaurants, museums, an aquarium, and more, the Wharf is also a good place to catch boat tours. Pier 39, also located at the Wharf, is an animated shopping center complete with rafts of barking sea lions.

My favorite Wharf spot is at the west end at Maritime National Historic Park where you can tour the old sea-faring vessels, watch the birds and swimmers. The square-rigger Balclutha, launched in 1886, is permanently moored here for self-guided tours.

5. Ghirardelli Square

Also down at the Wharf’s west end is Ghirardelli Square. Once the factory where Ghirardelli chocolate was made, this building is now a restaurant and retail complex with views overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

6. Transamerica Pyramid Building

A popular symbol of the San Francisco skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972. Here, visitors can enjoy a park with redwood trees in the middle of the Financial District. There is also a virtual observation deck experience that allows lobby visitors to operate four cameras positioned atop the building’s spire.

7. Coit Tower

San Francisco 1930s history comes alive inside this building decorated with stunning fresco murals. The tower was built in 1932-1933 and dedicated to volunteer San Francisco firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires. Visitors to the open-air top are rewarded with city and bay views.

This is one of the many murals inside Coit Tower.

8. Palace of Fine Arts

A pleasant stroll around this structure and lagoon brings the visitor back to the days of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition when it was erected as a temporary building. The only Exposition structure not to be torn down, it has been rebuilt and renovated since then, and has had a lifetime of different purposes.

9. Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in North America, this neighborhood is a densely populated Asian enclave covering 24 blocks of shops, restaurants, homes, hospitals, and churches. A walk through on any day is an interesting combination of old and new culture.

10. Painted Ladies

Seven Victorian houses in a row on Steiner Street. Alamo Park, seen here in the foreground, is often busy with tourists taking selfies in front of the houses.

There were 48,000 Victorian and Edwardian houses built in San Francisco in the years 1849-1915; many can still be seen. The advent of painting them in bright colors started in 1963 and still exists today.

11. The Ferry Building

Completed in 1898, the Ferry Building was originally built as a transportation hub for ferry boats as well as transcontinental railway lines. Since then there have been many changes and renovations, but it still remains a hotspot for ferry boats, commuters, and tourists.

12. Ocean Beach

On the far western side of San Francisco is Ocean Beach. It has been a local recreational site for over a century with Playland, the Sutro Baths, Fleishhacker Pool and several renovations of the Cliff House. Today it attracts residents, visitors, joggers, dog walkers and families.

Whether you visited decades ago or are planning a future visit, these 12 iconic San Francisco sites are just a few of the many picturesque highlights of the City by the Bay.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Birds of the Rainbow

There are many scientific discussions about the brightly colored birds on our planet. But instead of getting bogged down with melanin, refraction, and mating theories, let’s just look and admire today.

This is a day to relax into the rainbow.

We will start with the first color of the rainbow: red. The summer tanager and vermillion flycatcher, both found in North America and elsewhere, begin the rainbow with a hot start.

Shades of red vary in the avian world, these two birds are red-orange.

Pink birds, a variation of red, are not seen as commonly.

Next on the spectrum, orange in birds is often paired with brown. But this azure kingfisher sports a very bright orange breast and legs (and dazzling azure head and back).

This orange and black grosbeak breeds in our backyard every summer. The male’s colors flash conspicuously as he flies.

Since many forests have green leaves that turn to yellow, yellow birds can be found in many places.

Green is a color often seen in parrot species.

This violet-green swallow, a bird who nests in our nest boxes, swoops through the air showing off his elegant emerald finery.

Blue and indigo are both colors of the rainbow, and in birds there are numerous shades of blue.

This so-called green honeycreeper appears more turquoise.

While this turquois jay is adorned with several shades of blue.

The greater blue-eared glossy starling provides a blue spectacle all its own.

The aptly-named resplendent quetzal gets my vote for the most beautiful bird on the planet. The blue-green shades shimmer in the light, and the long streamer tail floating behind the bird stops you in your tracks.

We traveled to a very remote village in a Central American cloud forest to see this bird. We met our guide at 5 a.m. and he took us to the wild avocado trees where the quetzals eat. At one point there was actually a traffic jam in the forest because truck drivers, potato farmers and anyone passing by abandoned their vehicles to join our admiration club.

The peacock, a native of India with a long swag of green and blue, is incredibly eye-catching with a tail full of eyes.

Violet birds. The Costa’s hummingbird looks black in some light. But its throat and head vibrantly come alive with iridescent purple in the right light.

And this purple honeycreeper is so garishly purple it is difficult to look anywhere else.

Although the lilac-breasted roller has a lilac-colored breast, the bird showcases a rainbow kaleidoscope, especially when the bird spins through the air.

This leads us to a few sensational birds who grace the world with all the colors of the rainbow.

The rainbow bee-eater, a marvel to behold.

The painted bunting effortlessly showcases all the colors on the artist’s palette.

And lastly, the remarkable rainbow lorikeet, boasting the colors of the rainbow like no other bird on this planet.

Birders and photographers know well the game of light when it comes to the outdoors. If a brightly colored subject isn’t in good light, the color doesn’t stand out.

But there are those marvelous days when the light is just right: a day to celebrate the colors of the rainbow and all the glory on this planet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.

Hubble Space Telescope

Stephan’s Quintet, interacting galaxies. Courtesy Hubble.

When life on earth gets impossibly complicated, I often look to the skies for solace. On clear nights, I have a galaxy of stars above to embrace me. At other times, it’s Hubble’s photographs.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope (“Hubble”)  is situated above Earth’s atmosphere–340 miles (540 km) up. At this altitude, it is able to avoid the atmospheric distortion that terrestrial-bound telescopes and observatories encounter, resulting in pristine images.

 

Pillars of Creation, interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The information gathered from Hubble’s 30 years of images have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics.

 

With a very large mirror (see photo at end) and four main instruments, Hubble can observe in ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

 

“If your eye were as sensitive as Hubble’s, you could look from New York City and see the glow of a pair of fireflies in Tokyo.”

(Hubble’s Universe, Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images [2014] by Terence Dickinson.)

 

Hubble Space Telescope in space being serviced by Astronauts Smith and Grunsfeld (center), Dec. 1999. Courtesy NASA.

 

The only telescope designed to be maintained in space by astronauts, Hubble was launched into space in 1990. Since then it has been serviced, repaired and upgraded by NASA space shuttle missions in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009.

NASA:  Hubble Servicing Missions

 

Inside the Orion Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Due to these upgrades, Hubble is equipped with cutting-edge mirrors, computers and navigational equipment. It remains in space to this day, fully functioning.

 

Multi-layered insulation on the outside protects it from the harsh environment of space. Large solar panels turn the sun’s light into usable energy.

 

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit

Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Over the years, space shuttle missions to Hubble have been cancelled and re-scheduled due to funding and safety issues.

 

The fifth and final upgrade mission was serviced by the space shuttle Atlantis crew in 2009. Upgrades and servicing are over now, but Hubble could last until 2030-2040.

 

This is the Atlantis shuttle craft, below, now displayed in Kennedy Space Center.

 

Atlantis Space Shuttle on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

 

Engineering support for Hubble is provided by NASA and personnel at Goddard Flight Center in Maryland. Four teams of flight controllers monitor Hubble 24 hours a day.

 

Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is currently being developed by NASA with significant contributions from European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

 

NASA is generous with sharing data and Hubble images, and also provides numerous websites for anyone to visit, here are a few:

Online brochure:  Highlights of Hubble’s Explorations of the Universe.

NASA Website:  Hubble Space Telescope

This NASA link invites you to enter your birthday to see the photo Hubble took on your birthday. What Did Hubble See on Your Birthday.

Wikipedia Hubble Space Telescope

 

Crab Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Horsehead Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Carina Nebula. Courtesy Hubble.

 

 

Jupiter. Courtesy Hubble.

 

The triumphs and discoveries gleaned from Hubble are a testament to the profound abilities of humans from all over the world.

 

While we work on sorting through problems on our planet, we have the skies and space to dazzle our imagination, and open the universe to future generations.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Hubble photos courtesy NASA.

Atlantis Space Shuttle photo by Athena Alexander.

Hubble’s primary mirror measuring 7.9 feet (2.4 m), March 1979. Courtesy Wikipedia

Whirlpool Galaxy. Courtesy Hubble.

 

Camera Obscura on Wheels

Camera Obscura Front View

I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.

 

This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.

 

From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.

 

Camera Obscura Side View

 

Camera Obscura Lens

 

Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.

 

The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.

Camera Obscura Screen Photo of Russian River and Bridge

 

And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.

Crank for Turning Outside Lens

 

As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.

 

There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.

 

Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.

 

As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.

 

Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.

 

In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

 

I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.

 

I wrote about it in a previous post:  Camera Obscura San Francisco.

 

San Francisco Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

 

I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.

 

Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.

 

I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.

 

But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexanader.

More info:

The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

 

 

The Remarkable Fresnel Lens

Fresnel Lens, Vashon Island, WA, 5th Order

A modern invention of the 1820s that revolutionized the science of light and shipping was the Fresnel lens. This invention, created by Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), is a lens with an array of prisms capturing light and extending its reach. Today we are still influenced by these lenses around the world.

 

Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) lenses were originally created as a solution for the tragic ship wrecks that were prevalent in the 1800s. Ship captains, sometimes unable to see coastal waters due to low light, crashed their vessels into the reef with disastrous results.

 

Light naturally diffuses in all directions. Finding a way to cut down on this diffusion was the challenge for many years. At the time, shiny metal reflectors around the light source (oil lamps) were used to enhance the light, but this only gave about 50% reflection.

 

French physicist Augustin Fresnel’s skill and brilliance in interpreting the mechanics of light led to innovative lens inventions. Lighthouse visibility improved tremendously, and consequently made shipping safer.

 

Although I have been to many lighthouses, I never regarded the light as anything special. Then last year I was in the Visitor Center at a California State Park, Angel Island, and became instantly dazzled by a waist-high glass piece mounted on the floor. It had once been used in the lighthouse on Angel Island, and was on display.

 

It captured the light of the room in the most extraordinary, and beautiful, way. I’ve been a fan ever since.

 

Vashon Island, WA Lighthouse. You can see the Fresnel lens in the tower through the windows.

There are numerous aspects that make the Fresnel lens unique and effective:

  • the beehive-shaped design to capture multiple levels of light
  • it is constructed with concentric grooves that act as individual refracting surfaces.
  • the center is shaped like a magnifying glass, concentrating the beam

 

The first lens was installed in 1823 off the west coast of Fresnel’s home country, France, near Brittany, a land long-known for its rugged coasts. Here there were treacherous reefs that tragically and repeatedly snagged and destroyed ships. The new lens was a success.

 

Thereafter the French coast was lit up by Fresnel lenses. More info: Cordouan Lighthouse.

 

Early innovations began in France and Scotland, with America and other countries following. Chronology of Fresnel Lens Development.

 

Fresnel lens, Vashon Island, WA. Mt. Rainier in distance

Each lens was produced in brass-framed sections and could be shipped unassembled from the factory.

 

They were made in six different classifications, or orders. A 1st order lens is the largest size, at approximately 12 feet high (3.7 m), lengthening the light beam 26 miles.

 

Wikipedia Fresnel Lens

 

Here is a cross section of the Fresnel lens (on left) compared to a conventional lens of equivalent power (on right).

1 Cross section of a spherical Fresnel len, 2 Cross section of a conventional spherical lens

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Article:  “The Fresnel Lens” written by Thomas Tag

 

Lighthouse Science: Why the Fresnel Lens Costs a Million Dollars

Fresnel Lens classifications. Courtesy partsolutions.com

 

Lighthouse beacons have been  significantly modernized since the 1800s, but there are still lighthouses with Fresnel lenses–some in working order, some just on display. There are also many Fresnel light-refracting techniques in use today: spotlights, floodlights, railroad and traffic signals, camera and projector lenses and screens, and emergency vehicle lights.

 

List of U.S. lighthouses with Fresnel lenses

 

Many photographers and artists, including myself, hold a deep fascination and reverence for the miracle of light. How fortunate for us to have had Fresnel’s engineering skills to brighten this further.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Rotating Fresnel lens, 1st order, dated 1870, displayed at the Musée national de la Marine, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

1st Order Fresnel lens, Cape Meares Lighthouse, Tillamook, OR, USA. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).

 

Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.

 

How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)

Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.

 

Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.

 

More about touring here.

 

 

Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.

 

Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.

 

The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.

 

National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.

 

The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.

 

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.

 

Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating:  over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.

 

The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.

 

Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.

 

But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.

 

For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.

 

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

 

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Golden Gate GraveyardIf you haven’t bought Golden Gate Graveyard yet, it is available in paperback ($20) or digital format ($6.99). Buy a copy for yourself or a friend…but whatever you do:  stay legal.

Purchase from publisher

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Amazon.com or any other major book retailer.

 

 

The Mission Dolores Cemetery, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

The oldest building in San Francisco, the Mission San Francisco de Asis, more commonly known as Mission Dolores, was built in San Francisco in 1776.

 

In the back, behind a white adobe wall, is the old cemetery. It is one of the quietest spots in this urban sprawl.

 

Between 1769 and 1833, 21 Spanish missions  were established by Franciscan priests throughout what was later to become the state of California. The sixth mission to be founded was the San Francisco one. The missions were the origins of the state’s communities.

 

Mission San Francisco De Asís

Old Mission on left, Basilica on right. Photo: Robert A. Estremo, courtesy Wikipedia.

More information about the missions.

 

The old San Francisco Mission has a small chapel, museum, cemetery, and tiny gift shop; the basilica next door hosts regular Catholic church services. As a city, state, and national historical landmark, it is also a popular destination for tour buses.

 

Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

History of Mission Dolores here.

 

Mission Dolores, 1856. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

The chapel is popular and interesting, decorated and devoted. But it is busy with tourists and sounds echo.

 

Chapel interior. Courtesy Wikipedia

The cemetery, however, is hushed–with old rose bushes, palm trees, birds, and vibrant sunshine. This is where I like to be.

 

There are only two cemeteries in San Francisco, this tiny plot is one of them. It was originally much bigger.

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Today the earthquake-rippled sidewalks still lead you down a path of centuries-old gravestones. It holds the markers of San Francisco’s pioneers, leaders, old residents. There is also a revered sculpture of Father Junipero Serra.

 

I like to linger here among the broken graves with worn-off names, quietly listening to the sound of the chickadee singing overhead, feeling the penetrating warmth of the sun.

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Sometimes I think about the people who shaped this city, sometimes I think about Alfred Hitchcock who filmed a scene from “Vertigo” right here, and sometimes I wonder how long it will be before my parking time runs out.

 

Photo credit: Jet Eliot unless otherwise specified

 

Golden Gate GraveyardYou can read more about Mission Dolores in my newly released mystery novel. Purchase here or at Amazon or any other major book retailer.